Review: Blackstar HT Studio 20 head

18 Apr

The Blackstar Studio 20 is a tube amplifier that comes in two versions: a small form-factor head and a 1 x 12 combo. The subject of this review is the head, which I bought new in early 2011.

This is a very bare-bones amplifier. You get two channels, clean and OD, with a little foot controller that switches between the channels, an effects loop and a digital reverb (that cannot be selected via the footswitch). The clean channel has only two controls (volume and tone), but the OD channel has the full range of gain, volume, 3-band EQ and the customary Infinite Shape Feature, a knob that that gradually revoices the EQ from American to British tones. There are no little switches or buttons tucked away between the knobs or on the back of the chassis.

Some might feel underwhelmed by the single tone control on the clean channel, but it is voiced pretty well, with a slight American bias. By the time you reach 9 or 10, it starts to break up, but never achieves crunch, for which you would need an overdrive pedal of some kind. It is a good clean sound that can be round and jazzy or bright and twangy.

The OD channel is considerably more versatile. It does everything from mild breakup to completely over-the-top monster distortion. With the ISF control, I have yet to imagine a crunch sound that I haven’t been able to dial in. It does blues and classic rock very well, and has no problem with more extreme metal tones. Using the not particularly powerful PAF-36 humbuckers in my Les Paul, I get thrashy tones with the gain at noon, and to get a more conventional rock sound, I am forced to back off until about 9 o’clock. Most importantly, it is very responsive to playing dynamics and the control settings on the guitar. On all but the most saturated settings, you ought to be able to clean the dirty sound right up just by backing off on the guitar volume. This might be the ticket for players who feel constricted by the clean channel. About the only sound you can’t get via that method is a spanky clean with lots of headroom.

I was initially apprehensive about the 20-watt EL34 power section. Would it really be enough? As luck would have it, not long after my purchase, my good friend Viktor brought its big brother, the Blackstar HT Stage 100 head, to our rehearsal room and allowed me to perform an A/B test through the same 4 x 12 cabinet. The only difference in favor of the 100 watt was that it did have a bottom end that can’t be achieved at lower power levels. With the 20-watt, you get a whole shitload of volume (half the power of a 200-watt amp!), but you just don’t get that iron fist reaching up through the ground to pound your rib cage. I, however, immediately decided that I could live without that. In our band, the bass player supplies the bottom end and I happily exist in the middle. The benefits of the 20 are so much greater. First of all, the 20 has better tone: more womanly shaped, not as shrill and harsh as the 100. Second, I can push it much harder, which in itself adds lots of overtones and sustain. Any qualms about lack of power were squashed at the very first gig I did with the Studio 20. At the soundcheck, I was asked to turn down, turn down and then turn down some more. For small stages, and when you mike everything, it is actually overpowered.

The Studio 20 has been able to perform every job I’ve thrown at it for two years, and with flying colors. It might not have four channels (each with three modes), twin effects loops, solo level or assignable 5-band EQ, but it all comes down to what sort of player you are. Some players prefer to have all their tones ready to rock at the push of a pedal. In that case, the Studio 20 might not be for you. If you’re like me, then manipulation of the controls of the electric guitar is part and parcel of playing the instrument. In that case you will find this a wonderfully flexible tone machine almost irrespective of style and genre. It punches way above its weight class. And price tag.

On a more personal and less objective note, I have to admit that there are few times indeed during one’s career when one tries out a piece of equipment and it just changes one’s perception of everything. I cannot speak highly enough of this amplifier. It beat out some serious competitors to become my weapon of choice. I had my mind set on a Marshall JVM 410 or a Mesa/Boogie Dual Rectifier, and then a guy plugged me into this little amp and I was completely blown away.

Part of my buyer’s remorse had a little to do with the gnawing fear that I had let my wallet dictate terms to me. This amp was inexpensive, but would it prove to be too cheap? No, or at least: not yet. I have played this thing for over two years, and still get tremendous enjoyment out of the thing. I have tempted fate by trying out more Marshalls and Boogies, but nothing has been able to tickle my fancy. Quite the reverse, actually: I’ve been taken aback by the fact that amplifiers of such venerable brands and with such hefty price tags do not offer me anything other than flexibility that I ultimately have no need for. The Studio 20 has made me reevaluate how I think of tone, and above all: made me reconsider just what I need in a guitar amplifier. How I wish that these guys had started up just a few years before they did! Then I might not have gone down the blind alley that was the Marshall JMP-1: the MIDI setup that never was.

To summarize, it is a weird but very pleasant situation to be this satisfied. I grew up under the impression that there is always a better amp. Now I’m not so sure.


Posted by on 18 April, 2013 in gear, review


Tags: , , , ,

10 responses to “Review: Blackstar HT Studio 20 head

  1. Victor

    30 April, 2014 at 15:55

    Hey man,
    Please help me out. I am a complete newbie in the Electric Guitar. I only started playing 2 months ago. I am looking for a good AMP to play and grow with. I do not wish to buy “another one” when I am more experienced. I enjoy Jazz, blues, rock and stuff like Gary Moore.

    I went to Guitar Center and tried Studio 20, Club 40 and the HT5R. Maybe It was just me not knowing how to dial it in, but all were horrible sounding except the Club 40 giving a clean, clear, non muffled, true sound to me. But I talked to the owner, he said it was an overkill.

    So my choices here are now the Studio 20 and the ID series, probably the ID15TVP since I wont gig. I only play at home and to me, this is just a past time hobby I enjoy. I may play for a family reunion 5 years down the road, but you get my drift.

    I realize that the ID and Studio are differenet amps. But I just want to say that I had a very difficult time witht he Fender Mustang 1 V.2, But I have heard many things good about the ID series, so I am willing to give it a try. Looking for a serious crispy clean tone sounding Amp. Other stuff like headphones out, stuff not so important. I just wanna have that quality sound at low volumes and I got that even with the Studio 20. Wondering which would fit the bill better. Thanks for the help friend!

    • elevea

      5 May, 2014 at 10:57

      Hey Victor!

      I’d recommend the ID:15 over the Studio 20 in your case. It makes more sense with a solid-state amp for home use, since you get the very same sound no matter the volume level, without sacrificing much, if anything. The ID:15 is possibly even loud enough for the odd gig or rehearsal, definitely if you mike it up. It is also way more flexible than the HT-20, since you can pick and choose between six gain stages and six output tube stages. If you decide later on that you want to invest in a tube amp after all, the ID:15 might help you narrow the field down a bit.

      I’d check out the ID Core series as well if I were you. I cannot say anything about them since I haven’t tried them myself – yet.

  2. Victor

    5 May, 2014 at 15:33

    Thanks for the reply Sir!

    Should I bump up to a ID30 TVP? Since its only 100 bucks away? People on forum keeps telling me that more wattage, more headroom, more headroom = more clean clear sound. BUT as you already know, I dont need the volume. I have totally decided to get the ID series, it just seems a much more safer route than to risk any possible repairs, tube upgrades in the or just general failures. But as you suggested, upon some research…the ID Core series sounds so boss. Its much more pronounced in voice. The sound is so amazingly rich. But it will definitely lack the TVP function which is the reason why I pick the ID series at all to have a wanna-be tube AMP at the cost of an SSD. Do you think that I can get away with the ID15/30 if I plug in my really nice Hi-Fi external speakers that utilize a regular MP3/iPod jack and make the AMP sound stereo?

    I will also need a switch for going from clean to distortion, should I get a 2 channel footswitch from any company? or will it have to be by blackstar for it to work? Or should I just get a good distortion pedal? I have a good pedal in mind after some research. Its called a MXR 78′ Distortion pedal. I tried it at a store with the HT5R combo, and really liked the crunch, but I think with the ID series, I dont need a pedal….

    Thanks bud!

    • elevea

      5 May, 2014 at 19:41

      I’d probably go for the ID:15 and either pocket the difference or put it towards a good boost or overdrive. There is plenty of gain in the ID:15/30, so I wouldn’t bother with a proper distortion pedal. But I like to frontload the amp with a boost for that extra punch, presence and sustain when soloing (metal/shred style). The only reason to get the 30 over the 15 would be if you need the extra wattage for rehearsals and small gigs. In a home situation, I don’t see how headroom would become an issue with the 15.

      As for footswitches, I have used the channel switcher for my HT-20 in my ID:30 and it works perfectly. Any comparable on/off switch from any manufacturer should do the trick just as well. It does, however, only switch between patches 1 and 2 in a given bank (green/yellow/red), so you’d have to use the software to move your favorite sound combinations to those patches. Please also note that there is a slight delay when switching: the sound kind of fades between one sound and the next, which is not to everybody’s liking. If you want to switch between all four patches, you need the ID series footswitch.

      Going from the line out to your hifi could be the ticket, so long as you’re careful with the levels. The lack of TVP in the Core series would be a dealbreaker for me, I have grown rather fond of the EL34 and 6L6 emulations.

  3. Victor

    6 May, 2014 at 00:25

    Yeah, I read that part in your review, that delay thing, and not just your review, but among others have state this as a problem as well. Is it the switch in particular, that Blackstar makes that causes the slight delay? Will other brand pedals/switches also have this delay? I wouldnt want the delay, if not, what are my other AMP options? Maybe going towards the HT5-R combo, and just all together get a real tube amp? I have thought about an Orange Crush Pix 35 Combo Amp. I believe its a 20 Watt SSD Amp. Thanks so much for the advice thus far, this stuff is really all too overwhelming for a beginner!

    • elevea

      6 May, 2014 at 16:45

      It appears to be something with the amp rather than the switch, or so I’ve gathered. Another great option is the Marshall MG15CFX solid-state combo. Great tones if you like the Marshall sound, and five built-in effects. There’s also the MG15CFR if you want to forego the effects and just have reverb.

  4. Victor

    7 June, 2014 at 16:18

    How you been! Thanks for the recommendations, I have received my ID15 TVP 2-3 days ago, and really enjoyed it. The Amp was easy to dial in, still kinda new to it, so it took me some time to figure out how to use some of its functions. Great sounding amp. This is the only AMP I will need until I get to intermediate or advance level I believe. Anyway, I wanted to know if you can take some time and listen to this 45 second cover of this song I want to play. I was trying to dial in this sound, but had a bit of difficulty. I got a similar sound, but it wasnt as full. heres the link. Let me know if I need how to dail it in to get something like this.

    **PS let me know if I need to get OD or boost pedals for this tone. I have heard from many ID lovers, that adding boost and OD actually makes this AMP even MORE beefy! Thanks

    • elevea

      7 June, 2014 at 18:49

      Welcome to the Blackstar club! I’d say, that to get that kind of tone, I would go for a fat British setting: EL34 output tubes and ISF at 10. Maybe bass/mid/treble at 3/4/7, OD2 gain between 6 and 8. Some reverb for ambience and delay to fatten the tone up a bit more. Adjust to your liking. 🙂

  5. Victor

    8 June, 2014 at 04:40

    Awesome, Good guess, pretty much nailed the sound for me.Thanks! I have one more question in regards to the footswitch. I can only get the switches to switch between patches consecutively. For an example from button 1 to patch 50, button 2 to patch 51, button 3 to patch 52, button 4 to patch 53, etc. It only can be set that one. I cannot program it when it blinks to confirm my selection for the patch to chose another button to put that specific patch on. Thus making this switch useless. I am thinking and hope I am wrong but I would have to edit the patches so if for an example 51, and 52 are both dirty metal crunch sounds and I want 1 clean. Then I would have to overwrite either patch 51 or 52? < – – that is a very poor me….I might just go buy a switch. But honestly, I am loving all the patches, they sound great. THanks for getting back to me bro. .

    • elevea

      8 June, 2014 at 15:03

      I’m glad I could help you get the sound. 🙂 However, I’m afraid I cannot be of any use with the footswitch, simply because I haven’t used one myself. The one time I did a gig with my ID:30, I used the regular one-button switch from my HT-20. I’d recommend the official forum on Blackstar’s home page. Join the Owners’ Club too while you’re at it! 🙂


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